Why does anyone watch sports? Why does anyone care about playing video games based on sports?
Is it about wish fulfilment? Our primal need to feel part of a ‘team’, a primitive tribal urge? As someone who loves sport, I’d argue it’s about two things: watching someone artfully ply their trade…
The greatest sports game of this generation wasn’t FIFA. It feels strange to type those words. Throughout the course of this generation FIFA consistently delivered an incredible football experience. Football as a near flawless package: options galore, fan service, new game modes, core loops dialed tighter with each annual upgrade.
But when it came to representing what we love about sport — the art of it, the drama — FIFA, as good as it was, couldn’t come close to Fight Night Champion.
It was Fight Night Round 3 that provided the foundation. Fight Night Round 3 looked like a next generation game when we were still in the process of wondering what a next gen game would look like…
Or control like. Fight Night Round 3 was a sports game that not only looked like a next generation game, it felt different — quarter circles on the right analogue stick to throw hooks, flicks to throw jabs. It was a game determined to mimic the movements fighters made, a game determined to reinvent how sports games would be played in the future. A pre-cursor to games like Skate or, interestingly enough, FIFA. Games that made other sports games feel old fashioned and rigid.
Fight Night Round 4 expanded upon those core tenets, but Fight Night Champion represented its zenith. Controls retained their depth but were streamlined, evolved based on feedback concerning what worked and what didn’t work.
Yet Fight Night Champion’s true masterstroke was found in its wildest risk.
It was a mode that could only have made its debut in a boxing game.
Boxing: a sport where the drama comes thick, ladled in tropes from movies, music and its own storied history. Boxing is the underdog story. It’s Rocky. It’s Joe Louis. It’s Muhammad Ali. It’s Raging Bull. It’s all of these things. Arguably the most ‘cinematic’ sport, it made sense that Fight Night Champion’s ‘Champion Mode’ would ape cinema. Fight Night Champion would feature a real story. You would have a reason for fighting each and every time you stepped into the ring.
In Fight Night Champion you play as rising star Andre Bishop and, through him, punch your way through every boxing trope imaginable. The corrupt promoter, the injuries; the old, ring-savvy trainer taking up residence in a grubby, authentic gym. The temptations. The rise; the fall. The subsequent rise. If you’d seen it in Rocky you were almost certainly about to experience it in Fight Night Champion, a game that shoehorned every cliché it could into its wonderfully clumsy story and, incredibly, didn’t suffer from it.
Part of it was the shock of the new. No sports game had come close to investing this amount of time into a single player mode, so its weaknesses were forgiven. Usually the sport itself, the back and forth tussle, was what drove players to create their own narratives, their own reasons for playing. Fight Night Champion already had that. You could take it for granted. But the window dressing — the cinematics, the soundtrack — helped uppercut that inherent drama into the stratosphere.
But Fight Night Champion layered that genius with its use of the mechanics themselves, and the way it seamlessly integrated them into the story. That’s how the game brought a real, genuine sense of drama to proceedings.
Like the time Andre injures his big right hand and has to use his jab to get out of a tricky situation. That taught you boxing fundamentals.
Or the time a crooked referee called foul each time you hit your opponent to the body — that taught players how to head hunt.
And there’s the moment where the evil promoter bribes the judges so you need to win by knockout — that taught players how to use counters and land heavy shots to clean the opponent’s clock and get the KO.
I can’t think of any other game — even outside of the sports genre — that so delicately managed to teach, entertain and tell stories all at once. That’s what made Fight Night Champion, not only the best sports game of the generation, but one of the best video games period.
And like all great sporting stories it culminates in a final confrontation where the stakes couldn’t be higher. Where you, the player, must apply everything you’ve learned to overcome the odds. An incredible fight with a seemingly unbeatable foe. Fight Night Champion was the best sports game of the generation because it went directly to the heart of what makes sport so entertaining to begin with…
The artful application of a learned skill — and drama.